Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
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Modern Physics and Ancient Faith

Stephen M. Barr

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📖 eBook - ePub

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith

Stephen M. Barr

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A considerable amount of public debate and media print has been devoted to the "war between science and religion." In his accessible and eminently readable new book, Stephen M. Barr demonstrates that what is really at war with religion is not science itself, but a philosophy called scientific materialism. Modern Physics and Ancient Faith argues that the great discoveries of modern physics are more compatible with the central teachings of Christianity and Judaism about God, the cosmos, and the human soul than with the atheistic viewpoint of scientific materialism. Scientific materialism grew out of scientific discoveries made from the time of Copernicus up to the beginning of the twentieth century. These discoveries led many thoughtful people to the conclusion that the universe has no cause or purpose, that the human race is an accidental by-product of blind material forces, and that the ultimate reality is matter itself. Barr contends that the revolutionary discoveries of the twentieth century run counter to this line of thought. He uses five of these discoveries—the Big Bang theory, unified field theories, anthropic coincidences, Gödel's Theorem in mathematics, and quantum theory—to cast serious doubt on the materialist's view of the world and to give greater credence to Judeo-Christian claims about God and the universe. Written in clear language, Barr's rigorous and fair text explains modern physics to general readers without oversimplification. Using the insights of modern physics, he reveals that modern scientific discoveries and religious faith are deeply consonant. Anyone with an interest in science and religion will find Modern Physics and Ancient Faith invaluable.

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The Conflict between Religion and Materialism
The Materialist Creed
In recent years there have been a great number of books written on science and religion. Some of these books claim that science has discredited religion, others that science has vindicated religion. Who is right? Are science and religion now friends or foes?
Perhaps they are neither. A frequently heard view is that science and religion have nothing to do with each other. They cannot contradict each other, it is said, because they “move on different tracks” and “talk about different realities.” There is something to be said for this point of view. After all, there have been very few if any cases where scientifically provable facts have clashed with actual doctrines of Christianity or Judaism. Few believers any longer interpret the Book of Genesis in a narrowly literalistic way, and religious authorities no longer trespass on turf that belongs properly to scientists, as they did in the Galileo case. It is therefore perfectly true to say that science and religion are not in collision.
But while it is true, this viewpoint is too facile. The fact of the matter is that there is a bitter intellectual battle going on, and it is about real issues. However, the conflict is not between religion and science, it is between religion and materialism. Materialism is a philosophical opinion that is closely connected with science. It grew up alongside of science, and many people have a hard time distinguishing it from science. But it is not science. It is merely a philosophical opinion. And not all scientists share it by any means. In fact, there seem to be more scientists who are religious than who are materialists. Nevertheless, there are many, including very many scientists, who think that materialism is the scientific philosophy. The basic tenet of so-called “scientific materialism” is that nothing exists except matter, and that everything in the world must therefore be the result of the strict mathematical laws of physics and blind chance.
The debate between religion and materialism has been going on for a long time—for centuries, in fact. Why, then, the recent increase in interest in the subject? Is there really anything new to say about it? I think that there is.
What is new is that discoveries made in the last century in various fields have changed our picture of the world in fundamental ways. As a result, the balance has shifted in the debate between scientific materialism and religion. Many people sense this, but not everyone is exactly clear what these discoveries are or what they really imply. In this book I am going to give my own view of the matter, as someone who adheres to a traditional religion and who has also worked in some of the subfields of modern physics that are relevant to the materialism/religion debate.
Much of scientific materialism is based on certain trends in scientific discovery from the time of Galileo up to the early part of the twentieth century. It is easy to see why these trends led many thoughtful people to embrace a materialist philosophy. However, a number of discoveries in the twentieth century have led in surprising directions. Paradoxically, these discoveries, coming from the study of the material world itself, have given fresh reasons to disbelieve that matter is the only ultimate reality.
None of this is a matter of proofs. The discoveries of the earlier period did not prove materialism, and one should not look to more recent discoveries to prove religion. Even if religious tenets could be directly proven by science, the real grounds for religious belief are not to be found in telescopes or test tubes. Faith does not need to wait upon the latest laboratory research. What the debate is all about, as I shall explain later, is not proof but credibility.
I have said that the basic tenet of scientific materialism is that only matter exists. At that level, it is a very simple thing. On another level, however, scientific materialism is, like religion, a rather complex phenomenon. One can identify at least three highly interwoven strands in the materialist creed. In its crudest form it is a prejudice which looks upon all religion as a matter of primitive superstition, at best a source of some charming tales, like those of the gods of Olympus or Jonah and the whale, but at worst a dangerous form of obscurantism which breeds fanaticism and intolerance. Some religious beliefs, according to this view, may be more sophisticated than others, but none of them has any serious intellectual content.
Scientific materialism also comes in more refined philosophical forms. Here its critique of religion is essentially epistemological. It is acknowledged that there are religious ideas which have a certain intellectual appeal and internal consistency, but they are rejected as being unsupported by evidence. The assertions made by religion, it is said, cannot be tested and therefore cannot be accepted by a person who wants to be guided by reason rather than wishful thinking.
Finally, there is the “scientific” part of scientific materialism, which argues that religion, however believable it may once have been, has now been discredited by science. According to this view, the world revealed by scientific discovery over the last few centuries simply does not look anything like what we were taught to believe by religion. It is this claim that I shall subject to critical scrutiny in this book. The question before us, then, is whether the actual discoveries of science have undercut the central claims of religion, specifically the great monotheistic religions of the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, or whether those discoveries have actually, in certain important respects, damaged the credibility of materialism.
Before taking up this question, which is the main subject of this book, I will spend one chapter looking at materialism in its cruder form of anti-religious prejudice. This means making a brief digression even before I begin. However, I think this is necessary. Centuries of anti-religious myth stand in the way of a fair discussion of the real issues and must be gotten out of the way.
Materialism as an Anti-Religious Mythology
To begin with I will state the anti-religious myth in words that I think are quite typical of a great deal of writing on the subject.1
“Religion is the fruit of ignorance. Ignorant people, because they do not know how the world really works or the true causes of things, have always had recourse to explanations based on mythical beings and occult forces. They attribute the unpredictability of nature to the whims of gods and spirits. One sees this in the ancient myths and legends of primitive peoples. For example, in Greek mythology, thunder and lightning were the weapons of Zeus, storms at sea were caused by the wrath of Poseidon, and volcanic activity was associated with the subterranean workshops of Hephaestos, from whose Roman name, Vulcan, the word volcano comes.
“But religion is not just simple ignorance. It is a form of pseudo-knowledge. True knowledge—which is to say scientific knowledge—is based on reason and experience, on testable hypotheses and repeatable experiments. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are based on the authority of ancestors or holy men or sacred writings—in other words, on someone’s say-so. The fundamental opposition, then, between science and religion is the conflict, inherent and unresolvable, between reason and dogma.
“The defining moment in the history of science was the confrontation between Galileo and the Roman Inquisition. In this episode science and religion stood revealed in their truest and purest colors. It was the decisive contest between the two approaches to the world, the scientific and the religious, and religion lost. Its defeat proved the hollowness of religious authority’s claim to special knowledge about the world.
“Science is the rational approach to reality because it deals with things that can actually be observed. Its statements can be put to the test. Religion, by contrast, characteristically deals with entities—God, the soul, angels, devils, Heaven, and Hell—that are admitted to be invisible. Its statements, because untestable, must be ‘taken on faith.’ ‘Faith’ is nothing but the wholly arbitrary acceptance of statements for which there is no evidence, and is therefore the very antithesis of reason: it is believing without reason.
“As science has progressed, religious explanations have given way to scientific ones. No evidence of God or of the soul has been forthcoming. Rather, these fictitious entities have less and less room to hide. They were meant in the first place to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the physical world, and consequently they are being steadily and inevitably squeezed out as those gaps are systematically closed. Science is the realm of the known, while religion thrives on the ‘unknown,’ on the ‘unexplainable,’ and on ‘mysteries’—in short, on the irrational.”
It is not too hard to show that most of this fairly standard anti-religious caricature is based on misunderstandings and bad history. In the first place, it is important to emphasize that the biblical religions did not originate in pre-scientific attempts to explain natural phenomena through myth. In fact, the Bible shows almost no interest in natural phenomena. It is certainly true that biblical revelation, both Jewish and Christian, has as a central part of its message that the universe is a creation of God and reflects his infinite wisdom and power. However, the scriptural authors evince no concern with detailed questions of how or why things happen the way they do in the natural world. Their primary concern is with God’s relationship to human beings, and with human beings’ relationships to each other.
In other words, the religion of the Bible is not a nature religion. Indeed, one of the great contributions of the Bible, which helped clear the ground for the later emergence of science, was to desacralize and depersonalize the natural world. This is not to deny that the Bible is overwhelmingly supernatural in its outlook, but that supernaturalism is concentrated, so to speak, in a being who is outside of nature.2 No more were the Sun or stars or oceans or forests the haunts of ghosts or gods, nor were they endowed with supernatural powers. They were mere things, creations of the one God.3 It is not an accident that as traditional Christian belief has weakened in Western society in the last few decades there has been a recrudescence of belief in the “occult.”
What is true of the Bible is also true of Jewish and Christian teaching since biblical times: it has been very little concerned with attempts to give religious explanations of natural phenomena. If one looks at authoritative statements of doctrine from the time of the early church fathers down through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, one does not find pronouncements about botany, or zoology, or astronomy, or geology. For example, the most comprehensive statement of Catholic doctrine until just recently was the Roman Catechism, sometimes also called the Catechism of the Council of Trent, published in 1566, not long before the Galileo affair. There is nothing in the Roman Catechism pertaining to natural phenomena at all. The same is true of the doctrines of the other branches of Christianity, and of Judaism as well.
One place where theologians did concern themselves with the natural world was in interpreting the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, often called the Hexahemeron, meaning “the six days.” Even here, however, the central doctrinal concern was not the details of how the world originated, but the fact that it was created. St. Thomas Aquinas summarized the mediaeval church’s attitude toward the Book of Genesis as follows:
With respect to the origin of the world, there is one point that is of the substance of the faith, viz. to know that it began by creation, on which all the authors in question are in agreement. But the manner and the order according to which creation took place concerns the faith only incidentally, in so far as it has been recorded in Scripture, and of these things the aforementioned authors, safeguarding the truth by their various interpretations, have reported different things.4
The authors to whom St. Thomas was referring were the fathers and theologians of the ancient church, and, indeed, their interpretations of the Hexahemeron varied widely. In the East, the theologians of Alexandria tended toward very allegorical and symbolic interpretations, while those of Antioch and Cappadocia tended toward strict literalism. In the West, the greatest of the fathers, St. Augustine (354–430), adopted a very non-literal approach. To take an important example, St. Augustine held that the “six days” of creation were not to be taken literally as a period of time or a temporal succession. He held, rather, that all things were produced simultaneously by God in a single instant and subsequently underwent some natural process of development. Much earlier, St. Clement (ca. 150–ca. 216), Origen (ca. 185–ca. 254), and other Alexandrians had held the same view.5
In commenting on this issue, St. Thomas Aquinas said that the idea of successive creation was “more common, and seems superficially to be more in accord with the letter [of Scripture],” but that St. Augustine’s idea of simultaneous creation was “more conformed to reason,” and therefore had his (St. Thomas’s) preference.6
This statement of St. Thomas perfectly illustrates another important point, which is that the church has always sought to give empirical reason its due. Never (even, as we shall see, in the Galileo case) has the church insisted upon interpretations of the Bible that conflicted with what could be demonstrated from reason and experience. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas cites the teaching of St. Augustine on the principles which should be observed in interpreting Scripture: “Augustine teaches that two points should be kept in mind when resolving such questions. First, the truth of Scripture must be held inviolably. Second, when there are different ways of explaining a Scriptural text, no particular explanation should be held so rigidly that, if convincing arguments show it to be false, anyone dare to insist that it is still the definitive sense of the text.”7
Indeed, St. Augustine was sometimes quite vehement on this subject, obviously provoked by statements of some of the less learned Christians of his day. In a famous passage in his book De Genesi ad Litteram (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis), he wrote:
Usually even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics, and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe our books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren, … to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture, … although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.8
How then, given these very reasonable attitudes of such high authorities as Augustine and Aquinas, did the Catholic Church end up, in the early seventeenth century, condemning the scientific theories of Galileo? Part of the explanation, no doubt, lies with personal failings of the people involved, but it also had a lot to do with the agitated times in which Galileo lived. The church was caught up at that time in the great conflict of Reformation and Counter Reformation. The central accusation leveled at the Catholic Church by the Protestant reformers was that her teachings and practices were a corruption of the original pure gospel found in the Scriptures. The proper way to interpret scriptural passages thus became the major bone of contention. In order to guard against Protestant ways of interpreting Scripture, the church laid down at the Council of Trent certain principles of interpretation. These moderate and sensible rules ended up being tragically misapplied in the Galileo case. Ironicall...

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APA 6 Citation
Barr, S. (2003). Modern Physics and Ancient Faith ([edition unavailable]). University of Notre Dame Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2003)
Chicago Citation
Barr, Stephen. (2003) 2003. Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. [Edition unavailable]. University of Notre Dame Press.
Harvard Citation
Barr, S. (2003) Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. [edition unavailable]. University of Notre Dame Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Barr, Stephen. Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. [edition unavailable]. University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.